Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Problem with Google

It would be easy to just post this article on Google's seeming intellectual property grab with the comment "don't be evil" and leave it alone, but it really looks like a good faith attempt to preserve Google's ability to manage its services without getting tied up in a nightmare of lawsuits.

I agree that it's probably drawn a bit too broadly, but it's really not that big a deal.  The legal team overreached a little.  Roll it back.  Move on.

And this is the problem with Google

"Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."  There's an inherent tension between that mission and the rights of individuals to both their private data and their intellectual property. 

A good example of this would be Google's ill-fated attempt to digitize millions of books and make them available online.  This would be fantastic news for bibliophiles like yours truly, making literally billions of pages of rare or out of print books available online for free.  It's perfectly in line with Google's mission statement, and it has the added bonus of democratizing information flow.  And it's terrifying for anyone who makes a living on books.

Another example is the recent "slap on the pinkie" fine Google got for collecting sensitive information, including web histories and passwords, from personal wifi networks with its StreetView cars.  A national wifi map would be an incredibly useful thing to have, especially if it's constantly updated by a roving fleet that just happens to be out there mapping roads anyway.  Google only snooped on networks which weren't password protected; it's not like anybody got hacked.  And it's terrifying for everybody who owns a router.

There are plenty of other examples.  Plenty.

A company built on information management requires trust to continue being successful, and small missteps, even those made in good faith, reverberate when made by a company so intricately tied up in our daily lives.

The problem with Google is that there are too many small missteps made in good faith.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Incentivizing Intrusion

I just saw this article on yet more warrantless electronic surveillance.

What surprises me here isn't that police officers are tracking cell phone locations without warrants. What surprises me is a little throwaway piece of background information:

"The practice is so common that cell phone companies have manuals for police explaining what data the companies store, how much they charge police to access that data, and what officers need to do to get it.... Costs can range up to several hundred dollars for each request."
(Emphasis added, internal link omitted)

On the one hand, it makes sense for the government to reimburse business owners for records requests. It takes time and company resources to track a cell phone.

But on the other hand, this seems to create a profit motive for cell phone companies to encourage more records requests, and to look the other way when the requesting officer doesn't have the appropriate authorization.

If you look at how the fees are structured, it certainly seems like the cell companies must be making money from these requests. They charge activation fees, per use fees, premium fees for access to data and voice traffic, and on and on. T-Mobile charges $100 per day for access to a customer's location data. That's more than my smartphone bill for an entire month.

If cell providers are making money giving out customers' data without legal authorization, that's a serious problem. I want a lot more information about the profit margins on these fees, and now I'm curious about industry lobbying groups' involvement in the underlying regulations, too. This doesn't smell right.